Get It In Writing

At the beginning of each tenant-landlord relationship, the landlord and tenant are in the honeymoon phase. The tenant is eager to move in from wherever they’ve been, and the landlord is happy to have the home filled with someone who will regularly be paying rent. Early on, it’s easy to work things out, and it’s hard to see how that could possibly go wrong.

Here at the TRC, we see it go wrong. Tenants and landlords come to us saying that they had a spoken agreement with the other person, but now, that person isn’t doing what he/she said he/she would do. Tenants have concerns about landlords not making repairs; landlords have concerns about tenants not following a payment agreement… Everyone has concerns about roommates. Before things go sideways, it’s important to protect yourself, just in case.

Like Hansel and Gretel, the best way to protect yourself in these situations is to have a trail. Only for tenants and landlords, it should be a paper trail, not stones or crumbs. Make sure to have something in writing about all the agreements that you make. And it doesn’t have to be confrontational! Here’s how:

  • Start with a face-to-face interaction.  Face-to-face interactions are by far the easiest way for us as humans to work things out.  We can pick on body language, we can negotiate, we can figure things out together. Listen to one another and figure out a way forward.
  • Write it down at the time. If everyone is open to it, write down what you’re agreeing to in that moment. Try saying, “can we write this down so I can make sure to do what I’m supposed to?  Sometimes, I forget.”  Make sure both parties get a copy of the agreement.  Keep your copy in your rental folder.  It works better if everyone signs it, but something in writing is better than nothing at all.
  • Write it down afterwards. If you’ve had a good, productive conversation, sometimes you don’t want to ruin it by saying, “can we write that down?”  But you can always write something down, and send it along afterwards.  Try saying: “that was a great conversation we just had! Here’s my understanding of what we agreed to – please let me know if I misunderstood anything.”
  • Keep a log. Note phone calls, face to face conversations and letters.  It can be so hard to recall things after the fact, and for tenant-landlord law, things can end up in court SIX YEARS LATER!  You don’t have to write down conversations word for word, but take enough notes so you can remember what you covered. 

In what way should I write things down?

  • In a letter: Pen and paper is the classic method, and the laws reflect that.  Many laws haven’t updated their definitions of “in writing” for the digital age, and you don’t want that to be a problem if you end up defending yourself in court.  The TRC tends to recommend that people send letters “registered” or with a “proof of delivery” at the post office, rather than “certified.” “Certified” requires that someone sign for it (so those people can refuse, and the letter will never arrive).  “Registered” just gives the sender some proof that it was delivered.
  • By "electronic means": As of 4/18/18, if the lease says so, then a landlord can "provide and indicate agreement” by electronic communication, though the laws don't say which kinds of electronic communication are acceptable. Specifically, a landlord can use electronic means to communicate about: copies of the rental agreement, documents related to the rental agreement, security deposits; promises made to clean, repair or improve the premises prior to entering into the rental agreement, and notices to enter the rental unit. More here about this
  • In an email: If you have an email address for your landlord/management company/tenant, then you can absolutely email that person.  (Even better if that email address is in the lease). The problem with email is that it’s hard to prove that the other person received it.  You can get around that by asking them to respond, or by saying in the email, “I’ll also be sending you a copy of this in the mail.” Then, print it off and send it with a simple stamp.  Easy peasy.
  • In your own log: It’s a great idea to keep a personal log of the interactions that you have with your landlord/tenant/roommate.  It can help jog your memory later on about the timing of ongoing issues, and who promised what.  You can keep notes in emails to yourself or on paper. It won’t help the other person know what concerns you have, though, so it won’t show that they knew about a problem.
  • Text messages? Text messages are tricky – it’s easy to fake them, and some phone companies only keep a record of those messages for a couple days.  Many times, people who end up in court trying to use text messages are required to get proof from a phone company (by subpoena!), and those companies don’t have it.  You can get around these problems if: the other person says that they received the text message, or if you have some other way of putting it in writing.  For example: John emails Sara and says, “Bathroom fan is broken – can you please send over the maintenance guy?” Sara replies, “Sure.” John then emails: “I’m so glad you’re planning to send over the maintenance guy – I’m really worried about the damage a broken bathroom fan might cause.” That way, there’s proof about who it was sent to and when.

Why is it important to write things down?

  • It’s easier to remember. Sometimes people forget what they said they would do, especially if the agreement was reached at a moment of high emotional intensity.
  • It’s easier to hold someone else responsible. If nothing else works out, the last resort for problems under tenant-landlord law is to sue the other person in small claims court.  In court, the judge will want to see things in writing.  They’ll want to know when the other party had “actual knowledge” of a problem they could have resolved, or what everyone said they owed and when.  Those kinds of things work best with a paper trail.
  • You’re more likely to be taken seriously.  If you took the time to write it down and send it, the other person will see that and see that it’s a meaningful issue for you, and that you’re taking it seriously. It'll help them take it seriously, too.


Hi! Did you know that we aren't attorneys here at the TRC? And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written doesn't sound right to you, consult with someone you trust. A list of housing attorneys is available here


Edited 5/27/19 to include information about electronic means of communication, due to changes from 2017 Wis. Act 317, Sec. 41, Eff. 4/18/18.